Showing Up

3 min read

I stare at the flight information display in the airport and see that dreaded word "Canceled" next to my flight number. My legs feel rubbery and a sour taste invades my digestive system. I think at least the display could say they are sorry, or something to that effect, but "Canceled" seems to have the same status on the emotionless board as "On Time."

Once again I think of Woody Allen's famous remark that 80 percent of life is showing up. In my present situation, the remaining 20 percent is the presentation that I'm carrying on my laptop computer. Now it seems that preparing the PowerPoint slides was really the easy part. The hard part is going to be getting to the appointed place at the appointed time to show those slides. Woody Allen was right--a lot of engineering, like life, is showing up.

I marvel at the wisdom of Allen's observation. How did he come up with it, and how did it get publicized? Surely he doesn't have a problem in showing up himself. He must have minions who take him to places that he has to be, and if he doesn't get there, it's their fault, not his. I can't imagine that he stares at information boards that say "Canceled," and waits in long lines of disgruntled passengers to talk to an overworked agent about the hopeless situation. And even if he doesn't get to wherever he is supposed to be, surely they will wait for him.

People who are rich and famous must have writers following in their wake at all times. Whenever they say something quotable, it is immediately written down and publicized. If you or I should say something like life being 80 percent showing up, people would look away in disgust at our naiveté. But when Woody Allen or Yogi Berra or someone like that says the same thing, others nod their heads and say, "You know, he's got something there. We'd better write it down and tell people."

Unlike what I imagine Woody Allen's situation to be, most of us are on our own when it comes to showing up. At both ends of the trip, support systems often provide us with emotional and logistical support. But when you're out there in the middle, you're marooned on an island all by yourself, and the natives aren't friendly. You have only yourself to depend on, and only you will ultimately be blamed if you don't succeed in showing up.

Now you would think that if your flight had been canceled, you could blame the airline when you miss your meeting. Amazingly, that doesn't work. People think that it's your job to show up, regardless. You should have anticipated this and gone the night before. You should have had a backup plan. It's your fault. It's 80 percent of life, and you failed.

It's interesting how your own perspective changes when you are at the receiving end of this showing-up thing. You're running a meeting and an important participant nonchalantly turns up an hour late, claiming that he or she was caught in a traffic jam. Is your first thought about that bad old traffic jam, or are you thinking that the rest of you got here OK, so how come that person couldn't?

I'm thinking the same thing right now about my airplane. I got here in spite of traffic and other hindrances, and it seems that all the other passengers did, too. So where is our airplane? The airline probably has some really good excuse, such as the airplane got caught in a traffic jam, but I'm not buying it. If you're an airplane, it isn't just 80 percent of life that is showing up, it's everything.

The intricacies of the showing-up dilemma all come to a head in the moment of truth when you set your alarm clock on the eve of a commitment. Suppose you have to drive to an early morning meeting. A lot of complicated risk analysis has to take place in your head. What experimental data do you have on the probability distribution of driving time in traffic versus time of departure? What is the effect of projected weather? Most importantly, what are the expected consequences of being late by a given amount of time? In the face of these imponderables, you have to make an irrevocable decision about that uncertain future.

Even though everyone seems to take your showing-up for granted, I always feel a certain sense of personal accomplishment and triumph when I've arrived at some particular room in some faraway place at the scheduled time. The rest is downhill. I take a deep breath, turn on the PowerPoint, and coast. My 80 percent of life this time around has already been accomplished.

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